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Socialist Appeal, August 1936, Volume 2 No. 07, Page 1-4
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

The Elections in 1936

IT FOLLOWS from a Marxian analysis that revolutionary politics is utterly different in KIND from all other politics. Its aim is not to “improve conditions” or gain reforms or stop corruption or accomplish any other end within the framework of existing society; nor does it aim to win a parliamentary majority in “the government.” Its aim, the expression of the interests of the revolutionary class, is quite precisely to overthrow existing social relations, to smash the existing state, to found a new state that will superintend the task of establishing a new society.

Politics of all other sorts revolve within the framework of the existing order. Non-revolutionary political parties, contending for votes and office, represent different sections of the ruling class struggling for the major share of profits and privilege, different groups seeking the lucrative control of the governmental bureaucracy, different theories of how best to maintain the existing order and keep for it the support or tolerance of the masses, different organized attempts to secure this or that reform or concession for this or that section of the population. But all varieties of non-revolutionary politics PRESUPPOSE the continuance of the existing order in its fundamental structure: that is to say in capitalist society, non-revolutionary politics presupposes capitalist property relations, the exploitation of the masses by the propertied minority, the class domination of the bourgeoisie, the maintenance of the bourgeois state.

Working Class Politics in Early Period of Capitalism

During the period of the advance of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie, playing a progressive historical role, engineered the vast expansion of the means of production and brought mankind as a whole, to hitherto unheard of material levels, the DIFFERENCES in bourgeois politics were of genuine concern to the working class and to the masses generally. It was the class-conscious sections of the bourgeoisie that led the revolutionary struggle to smash the fetters of feudalism and of chattel slavery, that broke through the restrictions which held back the development of modern industrial production. All this had to be accomplished before the working class could itself play an independent role. Furthermore, while capitalism was advancing, it was to the interest of the working class to side with the sections of the bourgeoisie which fought against clericalism, for certain democratic rights, for mass education, etc. The “independent” function of the working class was confined to striving to win for itself as large as possible a share in the profits of capitalism, while throwing its weight to the more progressive section of the bourgeoisie.

Now, however, capitalism as a whole, on a world scale, is no longer a progressive but a retrogressive force. Its social relations no longer permit the further expansion of the means of production, but instead constitute an obstacle and brake to their expansion – indeed, serve to destroy them and send them backward. Capitalism is in its death throes, and offers the masses the prospect only and necessarily of continued and increasing poverty, hunger, unemployment, war, insecurity, and political tyranny. The dominant class under capitalism, therefore, has likewise become a retrogressive and reactionary class. The non-revolutionary issues, which revolve within the orbit of capitalist society, have sunk to secondary importance. The SAME general prospect – unemployment, hunger, war, fascism – follows necessarily from EVERY program which presupposes the continued existence of capitalism. This prospect can be altered only by revolutionary change, only by the overthrow of capitalism and of the power of the bourgeoisie.

The central political issue of our time is, therefore, the issue of the class struggle for workers’ power and for socialism. Every other question is of altogether minor importance, since its answer can be found only in the solution of the central issue.

Workers’ Power and Socialism Central Issue

It may seem far-flung and abstract to state that this is the central issue even of the 1936 election campaign in this country. Yet, in a very real sense, this is the case. It must be remembered that the class struggle of the workers is not confined to the United States. It is an international struggle and its phase here is not the same as in, for example, the Soviet Union, where the working class holds social power, or in France, where the struggle for power now is rapidly nearing an open climax. The struggle in the United States cannot be separated from the international struggle, even though the stage reached in the U. S. is at the specific level dictated by the concrete circumstances of national development.

It must be remembered, furthermore, that a chief function of bourgeon politics is to deceive the masses as to the real and central issue which confronts them. So long as the masses believe that their significant political choices lie WITHIN the capitalist order, capitalism itself, no matter what internal shifts take place, is not threatened. Every device serves: two or more avowed capitalist parties, to stage periodic “life-and-death struggles” for “the fate of the nation”; when that sham is seen through, a Populist or Labor party to slough off mass dissatisfaction into safe channels within the limitations of the capitalist state; when all else fails, a fascist dictatorship to maintain capitalist property with machine guns, concentration camps, and mass hysteria.

Revolutionary socialists must, however, break through the deceptions of, bourgeois politics. They must push aside all secondary and reformist distinctions, and pose directly the central issue: the class struggle for workers’ power and for socialism. Their success in an election campaign is not to be measured in votes or offices won, but in the extent and the depth to which they have succeeded in bringing the central issue before the consciousness of the masses.

It is in the light of such considerations as these that we must judge this and every other electoral campaign.

Similarities of Parties Other Than Socialist

Besides the Socialist party, four political parties have entered the national electoral campaign. Only two of these will figure conspicuously when the votes are counted. But the other two, the Union party and the Communist party, are also of symptomatic importance.

At first glance, these four parties seem far apart indeed. If we judge them merely from publicity releases, the speeches of their leaders, what they say about each other, we should conclude not only that they are the bitterest of mutual enemies but that each of them was marked off from all the others by basic policies, ideals, and perspectives. Marxists, however, cannot judge from the surface of things, but must penetrate beneath the covering of publicity and loose agitation down to the economic, social and political foundations. If we perform this critical task in the case of these four parties, we discover that in spite of their so considerable differences, in spite of the divergent social composition of their support, there are nevertheless certain fundamental similarities among them.

A first and significant similarity is the fact that the platforms, programs, and agitation of them all are consistently DEMAGOGIC. Demagogy means the adaptation of policy and propaganda to the prejudices of the audience to which it is hoped to appeal, without regard to the truth or correctness or workability of the given policy and propaganda. Demagogy is thus the exploitation of ignorance. It is in direct contrast to principled politics, which, though it naturally takes into account the psychology of its audience in determining the form and expression of its policies, nevertheless always tells the truth both about what is at present, what will probably be, and about what it proposes as solution. Principled politics, thus, instead of exploiting, combats ignorance; instead of pandering to prejudices and building on them, roots them vigorously out.

How else but as demagogy can we understand the Republican cry for “freedom” (from the most vicious of the open-shop industrialists), for a balanced budget (from bankers and economists who know that this is impossible financially, and who besides resist every increase in taxes which might bring it closer), for individual initiative (from the initiators of mass production and the assembly line), against monopolies (from the owners of the biggest of them)? Or the Democratic championing of the rights of labor (from the party that smashed the automobile strike, killed Shoemaker, flogs the share-croppers, grows and fattens on Jim Crow), or its railing at economic tyrants and its demand for continuing the forgotten man’s New Deal (from an Administration which has swelled profits a dozen times with little or no advance in real wages, which brings Chrysler the most prosperous year in its history, with more than 12,000,000 still unemployed), or for the “right of all to a living” (from the men whose policy of prosperity through scarcity guarantees that there is no? enough food to go around, even if there were the means to buy it)? Or the Union party’s railings .about inflation and isolation (from irresponsible charlatans who would be the first to howl as prices of manufactured goods rose, and who would most loudly call for war if the “national honor” of the bankers demanded it) ? Or the mouthings of the Communist party about a People’s Front against the Hearst-Landon-Liberty League reaction, about the Bill of Rights, and the union of all “liberty-loving and peace-loving” individuals (from a party whose only task is to serve the bidding of a tyrannical bureaucracy whose prison camps are more crowded with revolutionists than were at any time those of the Czar, whose chief aim is to prepare their following for support of the U.S. government in the coming war)?

The demagogy of the four parties is not accidental. All promises of material betterment, of peace, prosperity and security, are necessarily demagogic at the present time if they are formulated within the framework of the capitalist order, since none of these is any longer possible under capitalism. That is why only a program of revolutionary struggle AGAINST capitalism can at the present time be anything other than demagogy.

Republican Party For Big Business

But this, in turn, discloses a more basic similarity among these four parties, of which their demagogy is the agitational expression. Each in its different way presents a program which revolves within the orbit of capitalism, which presupposes the continued existence of capitalism. It follows therefrom that each of these parties is basically dedicated, however indirectly, to the maintenance and defense of capitalism. They differ profoundly, it is true, in the ways and means they propose; in their social composition; in the manner and direction of the “appeal” which they make. But these differences drop to a second place before this basic similarity.

An examination of the special features of the parties confirms this conclusion. We find, first, that the Republican party appears, on the whole, in this campaign as the party of open, traditional reaction. It is the party supported by the majority of the big capitalists, and by considerable portions of the middle classes, who, after turning away from the Republicans in 1932 in desperate fright at the ravages of the crisis, are now looking up once more to their rejuvenated old gods, the bankers and corporation executives. The reactionary policies of the Republicans are faintly clouded by ballyhoo over the “rejuvenated Republican party,” the “overthrow of the Eastern Old Guard in favor of the younger forces,” by the Borah-written “anti-monopoly” plank, etc.; but the pretense is weak. The leaders make clear that what the Republicans propose is a return to the good old Coolidge days. The future of capitalism and profits, they would like to believe, lies in real Americanism, in a balanced budget, rugged individualism, competition, no government “interference” in business, no monkeyshines with labor. They are revived by the taste of the profits of the last two years; and they want to pursue still increased profits in “peace” and in their own unhampered way.

Democratic Party For “Enlightened” Capitalism

The perspectives and propaganda of the Democratic party differ widely – in words at any rate. Equally devoted to the preservation of capitalism and the fullest possible capitalist prosperity (i.e., profits), the Democratic politicians believe that the methods of rugged individualism and traditional reaction are no longer adequate either to preserve profits or to keep the tolerance of the masses for the capitalist order. They advocate an “enlightened” capitalism, tempering the harsh wind of exploitation with fine phrases about human rights and public work, the needs of the masses and New Deals and collective bargaining. In this way, Jim Farley and his colleagues aim to drug the masses with heavy-scented promises, to oil the wheels of capitalism in order to prevent too open creaking.

And through such means, combined with cleverly administered relief, farmer subsidies, and an unprecedented bureaucratic machine, the Democrats have indeed won the temporary allegiance of a substantial majority of the people. Those ungrateful masters, the big capitalists themselves, have most of them turned against the hand that led them out of the depths of the crisis, they are unwilling to sustain the extravagant machine, and are impatient at the indirect methods – the “concessions” and flattery – which Roosevelt uses to keep the masses tied to capitalism. They want all brakes off. But the masses themselves, in the majority, still follow Roosevelt, and will reelect him. Most skillfully he has incorporated the trade-union bureaucracy in his staff; and through them staves off any serious third party threat, and keeps his hold on the ranks of labor. Roosevelt in 1936 is the true American People’s Front candidate: with his politely radical program, his broadsides against war and tyranny and reactionaries and fascism, and his following of organized labor and organized farmers and advanced New Republic and Church liberals; and a true People’s Front candidate, also, in his utilization of this program and this following, to serve the basic needs of American imperialism.

The Union party needs little comment. It appears suddenly as a momentary brew of U. S. Populist and farmer provincialism. Its demagogy is the most extreme and the most unrealistic of the four parties. It combines the old Greenback cry for inflation with an infantile program of U. S. isolation. It is certain that the Union party will make no serious inroads in the national campaign; and it is doubtful that its founders even intend it to do so. Lemke wants it for his own purposes in his local struggles; and Coughlin, losing his grip in any case, finds it helpful for the moment. At the most, they wish a few Congressmen from the West, to join to the inflation bloc. There is no evidence for the view that the Union party is Republican and Liberty League inspired: it should draw what votes it gets almost equally from the two major parties.

Communist Party an Obstacle to Working Class

These three parties are alike not merely in standing for the maintenance of capitalism:, but in being capitalist parties in the full sense, parties of the bourgeoisie. The Communist party, of course, though it enters the election with a program solely of “immediate demands” designed within the framework of capitalism, is not itself a capitalist, but a working class party. This does not mean that the Communist party actually expresses the needs and interests of the working class – the contrary is the case – but that it is the political expression of forces within the working class. Nor does it mean that the C. P. is itself a progressive force, an aid to the working class in realizing its needs. The C. P. is just the opposite: it is, at every turn, an obstacle to the working class, a mighty weight confounding and retarding the revolutionary struggle of the workers for power and socialism. But it is an obstacle of a different kind from the capitalist parties proper.

Specifically, the Communist party, in this country as elsewhere, is the political instrument of the reactionary bureaucracy of the first workers’ state, the Soviet Union. It expresses the needs and interests of that bureaucracy. To understand the role of the C. P. in the 1936 U. S. elections, we must, therefore, understand the present needs and perspectives of the Soviet bureaucracy. Striving desperately to preserve its power and privilege in a world headed for wars and revolutions, the Soviet bureaucracy tries simultaneously to unify and strengthen its house at home by conciliating non-proletarians, liquidating proletarian oppositionists, and building up its armaments; and at the same time abroad, through both its official diplomats and its unofficial agents, the sections of the Communist International, tries to win the support of bourgeois nations, first, for “peace” – i.e., the imperialist STATUS QUO – or, second, Tor military aid or at least no attack when war comes.

The Communist parties do their part through the line of the People’s Front, mechanically and rigidly imposed throughout the world: trying to build up broad, formless, classless aggregations of “peace-lovers” who will shout for “peace” while they can, and be ready to demand either benevolent neutrality or war against the “fascist aggressor” (who, presumably will be the enemy of the Soviet Union in the war) when the time comes. So, in this country, in 1936, the aim of the C. P. is directed not at all against capitalism and the bourgeoisie, but toward the extension of this People’s Front ideology as widely as possible. But, since it is Roosevelt himself who represents the closest American counterpart of the People’s Front, the C. P. in practice is led, in effect, to virtual support of Roosevelt, and to a concentration of fire against the “Hearst-Liberty League – Landon reaction.” It is still quite possible that the C. P. will withdraw its national candidates in favor of the “lesser evil.”

This outline of the positions of the four parties in the 1936 campaign enables us to answer easily enough the arguments and slogans which are used to deceive the masses as to the only genuine political issue – the issue of which class holds power – which, from the point of view of the working class, faces us in this and every other political development.

Both Roosevelt and Landon Represent Reaction

“Roosevelt or reaction!” chorus Jim Farley and John L. Lewis. As Norman Thomas so correctly pointed out in Cleveland, obeying the advice of this slogan gives us both. The difference between Landon and Roosevelt is not between what is reactionary and progressive: they BOTH are unequivocal representatives of the reactionary social class in modern society, both sworn to uphold a reactionary social order; they differ only in their versions of the most effective means for guaranteeing the success of reaction. For the worker, the choice between them is, at the most, no more important than the choice between the assembly line at Ford’s or at Chrysler’s.

“The main danger,” the Communists tell us, “is from the Hearst-Liberty League-Landon combination” and the main effort in the election must be to defeat it. Once again the same reasoning applies. The Roosevelt reaction, from a class point of view, is quite as dangerous as the Landon reaction. Indeed, if anything, it is more so, precisely for the reason that the Roosevelt reaction is overlaid with the liberal and “pro-labor” phraseology. Roosevelt is more successful in harnessing the masses to the yoke of capitalism because he more fully deceives them while doing so. Contrary to the Communist view, there is a closer foreshadowing of American fascism in the methods of Roosevelt than in the more open methods of the Republicans. Fascism, too, appears as reaction in a “radical” disguise.

So, likewise, for all the specious arguments that the “main issue” in the campaign is the “judicial tyranny” of the Supreme Court or “States’ rights” and the “encroachments of the Federal government” or “amending the Constitution” or any of a thousand others. How entirely subordinate such issues are to the basic CLASS issue, to the issue of capitalism versus socialism, is ironically illustrated by the position of the doctrine of “States’ rights” and the power of the Supreme Court. The Republican party, founded by the bourgeoisie of the Northern States, was, when it first took office in 1861, the champion of the power of the Federal government as against States’ rights; the Democratic party, as representative of the slave-holders, upheld States’ rights – which meant resistance to domination by the capitalists of the North in control of the Federal government. The Democratic party stood by the Supreme Court, whose Dred Scott decision favored the slave-holders. The Republican party took up arms to overthrow the decision of the Supreme Court, and to maintain the power of the Federal government.

In 1936, positions are exactly reversed. It is now the Republican party that has become the defender of States’ rights and of the Court. Both of the two major parties realize clearly that such matters – the form and mechanism of government – are entirely subordinate to the main question, to be utilized as most convenient by whoever controls the state machinery. All such issues are now limited to the capitalist framework. It is not the Supreme Court or the Constitution or the Federal government or the States which are the particular enemies, but capitalism as a whole and its entire state apparatus.

No, the main issue for the working class, the only issue that is for it of profound and genuine moment, is the CLASS issue: what class holds power? The Socialist party can fulfill the role of conscious leader of the working class only to the extent that its own campaign is conducted on this basis, only to the extent that it is a class campaign for socialism. All of its propaganda, all its discussion of particular demands, must be attached to this axis. Now, more clearly than ever before, it must be the Socialist party against the field, – for power and for socialism.

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